Hiyashi Ramen at Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge ($9.95)
Ai's hiyashi ramen is so fresh and new for summer, it's not even on the menu yet (but don't hesitate to ask for it). What we have here are the noodles, pork, and other recognizable ramen ingredients—in this case, sweet, fluffy tamago, bamboo shoots, pickled vegetables, and fish cake—minus the broth. The curly ramen noodles are meant to be dipped in the soy dashi dipping sauce, which includes a float of sesame seeds and sliced scallions. The procedure is simple: briefly bathe the ramen noodles in sauce and get slurping. Not unlike increasingly popular tsukemen, the appeal of this ramen style is that the cold noodles aren't subjected to prolonged cooking (and potential overcooking) by swimming in hot broth while you eat. So you get to savor Ai's superbly tender-firm ramen for the duration. That's cool.
Chilled Peanut Satay Noodles at Lula Cafe ($11)
Lula's bowl of chilled peanut satay noodles is almost too pretty to disrupt. Almost. The array of bright pickled vegetables, big cuts of pliant tofu, strips of gossamer nori, and scattered black sesame seeds do indeed make for a handsome exterior, but you'll want to dig around below the surface; that's where the dense, cool, comforting noodles are lurking, all tangled up in a buttery peanut sauce. And while you're at it, dump those cups of sriracha and sesame oil right in, hose the bowl with that wedge of lime, and give everything a thorough stir. Now it's just pretty delicious.
Tempura Zaru Soba at Tampopo ($12.50)
Eating cold buckwheat soba in summer is a long-held tradition in Japan. And, being Japan, a whole material culture of serviceware, dips, and other yakumi (condiments) has grown up around this practice. One such presentation: zaru soba, in which the noodles are often both drained with and served on a zaru, a flat bamboo basket, and topped very simply with delicate threads of nori. Other than that, the noodles are unadorned; wasabi, grated daikon, chopped scallion, and a dipping sauce called tsuyu usually come on the side as flavor modifiers. Tampopo does all that and more, augmenting its über-authentic presentation with the option of crispy shrimp and vegetable tempura (which, of course, have their own sauce, too). Pleasantly light on the earthy buckwheat, Tampopo's soba noodles arrive firm, toothsome, and just sticky enough for the malty, mildly sweet tsuyu to cling on.
Sesame Noodle at Mana Food Bar (small $6/large $11)
Who says chilled noodles can't be hot? Spicy hot, that is. Mana Food Bar's sesame noodles are slathered in a rich, sesame-peanut sauce, which just begs to dance with some vibrant heat. Enter Mana's own housemade green chili hot sauce. By themselves, the saucy, languid, yet elastic noodles might feel too weighty. But the addition of extra-crunchy shredded pea pods helps to dial in the bowl's textural balance.
Hanoi Cold Noodle at Rodan ($10)
You think we have it bad? It hit well above 90 degrees in Hanoi several times this month. In extreme heat, it's all about maintaining lightness. The Hanoi cold noodle dish at Rodan seems to capture that spirit, with its feathery rice vermicelli, perfumed with curls of fresh, fragrant mint leaf. The nest of ivory-white noodles shares the plate with well-crisped tofu (or shrimp for $13), which sit atop a bed of greens, cucumber, red bell pepper, and crushed peanut. The sweet, tangy dipping sauce provides just the unctuous touch the noodles need to assert themselves—lightly, of course.
Szechwan Spicy Cold Noodle with Pork at Potsticker House ($5.95)
The soup dumplings are great at Potsticker House. But somehow, come summer, the notion of eating what's essentially a dough balloon filled with piping hot soup becomes just a tad less appealing. Luckily you can opt instead for the Szechwan spicy cold noodle with pork (#107 on the extensive menu). The noodles shine between the juicy sliced pork and julienned cucumber. They're thick and commanding, with a stop-you-in-your-tracks bite and a strong, wheaty flavor.
Raw Fish Spicy Cold Noodles at Da Rae Jung ($10.99)
Seemingly in lieu of a welcome mat, the bustling Korean restaurant Da Rae Jung has a sliding-glass-door fridge in its dining room, visibly laden with jars of housemade kimchi. I certainly felt happy to be there after glimpsing that sight on a recent visit. But enviable kimchi isn't the only Korean staple Da Rae Jung traffics in; the family-run restaurant also serves up a trio of traditional Korean chilled-noodle dishes, including raw fish spicy cold noodles. Thin yet resilient buckwheat glass noodles form the basis of this dish. Raw skate, pears, radish, cucumber, and a boiled egg round out the accompaniments. Oh yeah, and a spicy, funky, salt-spiked sauce of maddening complexity. The proprietor will happily dress up your noodles for you with vinegar, mustard, sesame oil, and sugar. Let him do this.
Da Rae Jung, 5220 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 (map); 773-907-9155